Steve Phillips walked the cloverleaf of fields that connected his office to the Gulf Coast and Florida State League teams he oversaw. As he stopped at each diamond to watch his draftees being put through their paces, he wrestled with an uncomfortable question: what to do about the bizarrely bulky bodies parading in front of him?
In the spring of 1994, Phillips, just 31, was the Mets' hotshot director of minor league operations, in charge of one of the best farm systems in baseball. As an executive, Phillips (now an analyst for ESPN) was definitively new school, a goateed former psychology major and sometime motivational speaker; someone more likely to line up pens on his desk than cans of chaw. But he'd also spent seven inauspicious years in the minors as a second baseman; his claim to fame was pulling the hidden-ball trick seven times in one season. It was a career path that ensured he'd get a steroids education.
In 1987, while he was playing for the Mets' Double-A affiliate in Jackson, Miss., Phillips arrived early at the ballpark one day for some extra BP. As he walked into the clubhouse he was greeted by the sight of one teammate injecting another in his upper body. Phillips stared but said nothing. The user, who'd shown up at spring training with new biceps, shot back a conspiratorial grin that Phillips says he took to mean, "You know. We all know. And this is what it looks like." He walked away, struck by how little effort his teammate had made at concealment. Players simply took for granted that they wouldn't rat each other out.
Seven years later, Phillips was running across newly minted monsters more often. And now he was their boss. Concerned, he began to test some who were suspiciously oversize and behaving oddly. That summer, the first of several players flunked. Phillips handled it internally, as a human resources issue. Officials at the Mets' Employee Assistance Program informed the player of the result, countered his claims of innocence with assertions of the quality of the test and offered him education about drug use.
Soon, though, Phillips had more urgent concerns. Two years earlier, hard-line owners had sacked Fay Vincent, who they thought was too cozy with the players. Now, smoldering tensions between owners, led by interim commissioner Bud Selig, and the players were about to explode.
Selig was easy for fans and sportswriters to caricature as the used-car dealer he once was. Here was a 60-year-old man whom friends called Buddy. If his demeanor was an expression of his small-town values, so was his unshakable belief that small-market teams like his beloved Brewers had to be protected from skyrocketing payrolls. Even before he took over as acting commissioner in 1992, Selig had crafted alliances among the low-revenue teams. By 1994 he was finally in a position to make demands -- for a salary cap, an end to arbitration and restrictions on free agency. The players responded to him by going on strike on Aug. 12.
The strike squashed a potentially historic season and shattered the covenant between the keepers of the game and its fans. The Expos, who had never been to the World Series, owned the best record in the game. The AL East-leading Yankees were eyeing a return to the postseason for the first time in 13 years. The Padres' Tony Gwynn, hitting .394, had a legitimate shot at .400. Matt Williams, with 43 home runs, was on pace to tie Roger Maris. His teammate Barry Bonds, in his second season at Candlestick, had 37.
The strike dragged on for 232 days, wiping out nearly 1,000 games over two seasons. When Selig was forced to cancel the World Series on Sept. 14, millions of fans came to the same conclusion: the game wasn't worth their time, money or love anymore.
The battle intensified the already incredible animosity on both sides of the table. Labor
secretary Robert Reich, monitoring the stalemate, said he'd never witnessed such hatred in a negotiation. The deep divide ensured that the players would support Donald Fehr, the union's dour executive director, almost unconditionally.
With the financial stakes so high, steroid testing was not at the top of management's list of priorities. When it did come up, it was in the context of an overall drug policy. Even after the 1980s cocaine scandals, the owners hadn't been able to get testing into the 1990 agreement. The union and its leader were resolute in their position: drug use warranted treatment, not punishment, and drug testing was a violation of privacy rights.
Sitting in his office in Florida, Phillips began to worry that the labor strife might cost him his job. As it was, the federal government was about to make the one he had more difficult. Two months after the players walked out, Congress passed a law that gutted the FDA's ability to regulate nutritional supplements. The Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act freed manufacturers of everything from andro to ephedra to toad venom from the burden of proving them safe.
That winter, major leaguers -- who had been locked out of their clubhouse weight rooms -- turned to local gyms for their workouts. Awaiting them were strength coaches and gurus who could now legally pass around performance enhancers as if they were Life Savers. The medical department of one American League contender was worried enough about unsupervised supplement and steroid use to send a letter to its players that read, "What you do in the off-season can reflect on your performance next year -- think twice before you do something that might cause harm to your career."
A federal judge finally issued an injunction against the owners in the spring of 1995, saving fans from the prospect of fields manned by replacement players. The owners had put testing on the table, but when the union resisted, Selig, anxious to reach a settlement, let the issue die without a fight.
So did Phillips. Sitting with the Mets owners during the abbreviated spring training, he got the feeling that his job was to listen, not to lead. And they were talking finances, not drugs. The pros went back to work on April 25. A comprehensive testing program for the Mets' minor league system would have to wait.
That winter, major leaguers -- who had been locked out of their clubhouse weight rooms -- turned to local gyms for their workouts. Awaiting them were strength coaches and gurus who could now legally pass around performance enhancers as if they were Life Savers.